Cubs can’t seem to escape the doom and gloom
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter February 13, 2014 10:16PM
Updated: March 15, 2014 6:38AM
MESA, Ariz. — It’s the day baseball invented for optimism.
But even on the day Cubs pitchers and catchers reported for spring training Thursday, at a sparkling new facility no less, reminders persisted about just how bleak this season looks — about how far away this organization is from making any serious noise at a major-league level.
The immediate news of the day was the revelation that promising starter Jake Arrieta likely won’t open the season on time after shoulder “tightness” during his offseason throwing program prompted a slow-and-cautious approach to camp.
The Cubs believe they have enough depth to cover his absence at the back end of the rotation for now. And they aren’t suddenly going to go from worst to first with or without him, anyway.
But just three weeks after the Cubs were outbid for coveted Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka — and as they prepare for a season in which their projected Opening Day starter (Jeff Samardzija) is a near certainty to be traded — the Arrieta injury seemed to fit right in with the tone of 2014 and where this rebuilding process stands in its third year.
Just listen to team president Theo Epstein. Almost lost amid the typical first-day happy chatter of a media conference, Epstein was asked about how he planned to use the money saved when the Cubs committed a combined $7 million this year to free-agent pitchers Jason Hammel and James McDonald instead of the $20 million set aside for Tanaka.
It was a reference to the surprising suggestion by Epstein during Cubs Convention that he might carry over a chunk of unused payroll to next season — an almost unheard of practice and one the previous regime wasn’t allowed to consider.
“In the two previous offseasons we spent every dollar available to us,” said Epstein, whose payrolls have gone down each season — and whose Opening Day payroll this year is the Cubs’ lowest in more than a decade (roughly $85 million).
“This is the first winter where we ended up keeping some in reserve,” he said, “to be used on players — hopefully, prime-age, impact-type players down the road. But it certainly gives us a bit of a leg up as we look towards next winter or an in-season move that might make the present and future better.”
Epstein said the money could be used toward a high-priced international free agent this summer or to trade for a young expensive player with long-term upside — or, he said, “to just start out next offseason knowing that we can be a little bit more aggressive on the guys we really want early because that money will be available to us.”
More aggressive? On players he really wants? Because the money will be available?
What happened to all the assertions — mostly by ownership and the business operation — that baseball operations has all the money it needs for the players it wants?
Or what chairman Tom Ricketts and his representatives have repeatedly said: That when Theo and general manager Jed Hoyer want a player, ownership will write the check.
What sources have said for more than two years is becoming clearer every day even in the team’s publicly documented day-to-day practices.
Tens of millions of dollars have been added to the revenues of every team in baseball through new national TV and advanced-media income in recent years, including a big boost this year.
The Cubs’ new Dominican Republic academy and new spring-training facility combined cost the Cubs roughly $6 million. Spending on draft picks and young international amateurs has been capped by MLB.
So whether it’s about the lingering weight of the Ricketts family’s purchase debt or profit-taking, a significant amount of money being brought in is being diverted to something besides baseball — leaving as an empty narrative the suggestion that more spending must wait until new Wrigley or local TV revenues come in.
For now, the Cubs can hope that Arrieta might be ready to make an Opening Day start by then.